Critique, Essays, Games, Gender, Opinion, Sexism

Scary, Magical Women: Lilith of Borderlands

SPOILER WARNING: Borderlands, Borderlands 2

“Alright, you mindless gun-hands: you’re looking for a really hot chick with blue tattoos and mystical powers. A Siren. Specifically, one named Lilith. The official reports say she died in New Haven, but I’m positive she’s hiding out near Sanctuary. If you catch wind of her, tell me and I’ll pay you enough money to build a mansion made out of other, smaller mansions. Out.

 “Yeah, I just realized you grunts are gonna get yourselves killed without this little tidbit: all Sirens are born with different, crazy-ass powers. You cannot — I repeat, CANNOT win a fight with them in one on one combat. you see Lilith, contact me IMMEDIATELY. I can handle her — you can’t. Me yes, you no!” – Handsome Jack

Women are magical, and that’s scary.

 It’s a common trope in Western fiction; generally lesser in physical strength and speed to men, women call upon mysterious and terrifying powers to exert their will.

The Siren class in Borderlands 2 is a magical woman. The only female class in the first release of the game, (later DLCs introduced the female engineer the Mechromancer) she’s the only one with a strange, otherworldly power. The Commando is an ex-soldier with a gun turret; the Gunzerker goes on a dual-wielding rampage; the Assassin has a hologram and stealth. The Siren uses phase powers, said to be connected to ancient alien civilisation and rare glowing minerals, to lift her enemies into the air and hold them trapped and helpless.

Each Siren is born with a variant on “phase” powers, her body marked with swirling patterns. There can only be seven Sirens in existence at any one time. Their powers and existence are never really explained — they’re somehow connected to the Vault all the characters are hunting, and the Eridium that’s mined from the planet. Her powers may well be a case of sufficiently advanced technology resembling magic, but from the narrative perspective, she’s essentially magic.

Lilith The Firehawk

Lilith as the Firehawk in Borderlands 2

She’s part of a fairly familiar subset of character type; a person with natural superpowers, somewhat variable and fuzzily edged (chaos magic, psi abilities), who taps into a force beyond themselves and gains greatly in power.

The magical woman appears in many different media. The X-Men’s Jean Grey, the Phoenix, fulfills this role in both comics and movies. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, regularly loses control of her sanity and powers in comics; we’ll have to wait and see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In games, Sarah Kerrigan’s psi powers lead her to become the Zerg Queen of Blades in Starcraft, Rinoa Heartilly struggles with the powers of a Sorceress in Final Fantasy VIII, and Leah in Diablo III incarnates Diablo, the Prime Evil.

Cover Artists: Steve McNive, Justin Ponsor; Writers: Rick Remender; Penciler: Steve McNiven; Inker: John Dell; Colourist: Laura Martin; Letterer: Clayton Cowles; Editor: Tom Brevoort, Daniel Ketchum

“Too dangerous to live.” Uncanny Avengers #14 Writers: Rick Remender; Penciler: Steve McNiven; Inker: John Dell; Colourist: Laura Martin; Letterer: Clayton Cowles; Editor: Tom Brevoort, Daniel Ketchum

These women often fear their power; they’re often consumed by it. They’re seen as unstable and dangerous. They often do terrible things “under the influence.” Frequently, they then have to die to atone for these crimes. They’re often seen as terrible dangers due to their possibility of running amok. (They’re not invariably female; a male example would be The Sentry from Marvel comics. But they’re usually female.)

Three Sirens appear in Borderlands 2. Lilith is an non-playable character (NPC) Siren, previously the playable character (PC) Siren in Borderlands. As a Siren, Lilith has “phasewalking” powers, similar to teleportation. She explains that since the Vault opened at the end of Borderlands, Eridium has become common and she can use it to enhance her powers.

All this is fairly conventional, storywise. The handling of it is quite different from most stories about magically powerful women, though. We hear an audio log where, in an unsteady voice, she recounts her first use of Eridium, when she melted a guy — and after a pregnant pause, she exclaims, “This stuff is the TITS!” Lilith is utterly enchanted with her expanding powers; she uses them frequently, often draining herself to exhaustion before using Eridium to refresh herself.

[pullquote]“Yeah — since the Vault opened, my Siren powers have been getting a little… awesome, thanks to this Eridium stuff.” – Lilith[/pullquote]Draining to exhaustion is another common trope. There are exhausted sorceresses fainting in a warrior’s arms, a psychic getting a nosebleed from some forcible telepathy. A character resorting to stimulants and power boosts is usually an opening to a story line about addiction or self-destruction.

These narrative chickens don’t come home to roost for Lilith. She uses her increasing powers in service of her cause, helping and protecting her allies, using Eridium at need to boost her powers to ever greater levels. The apex of her powers is teleporting an entire settlement into flight to escape an orbital bombardment. Moreover, her friends never fear her or her growing abilities. While they show concern for her well-being, they don’t worry she’s losing control, they don’t tell her to stop using Eridium, and they don’t hesitate to fight side by side with her.

Jean Grey and Wanda Maximoff, on the other hand, are constant targets of suspicion and fear from their fellows. This may be ironic, given that mutants are considered suspicious by the world at large due to their powers. There have been several committee meetings at various times where superheroes discuss whether to “put down” Wanda. She reels from evil crisis to evil crisis. This is a common enough trait in her family, but for Pietro Maximoff and Erik Lensherr, it’s generally presented as moral ambiguity, not succumbing to the consequences of great power.  Similarly, while Charles Xavier and Stephen Strange have spectacular amounts of psychic and chaos power respectively, they’re rarely found descending into deadly rampages and considered too dangerous to live.

Cover Artists: John Byrne, Terry Austin, Gaspar Saladino Writers: Chris Claremont, John Byrne Pencilers: John Byrne Inkers: Terry Austin Colourists: Glynis Wein Letterers: Tom Orzechowski Editors: Roger Stern

Scott afraid of Jean’s powers. X-Men #131: Writers: Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Pencilers: John Byrne, Inkers: Terry Austin, Colourists: Glynis Wein, Letterers: Tom Orzechowski, Editors: Roger Stern

Lilith is incredibly refreshing. It’s very much in keeping with the Borderlands 2 tone, where characters exult in bigger guns and more awesome powers, but it’s so rare to see a woman revel in her growing power and not pay for it in loss of self, defeat, and atonement. She’s the big gun and secret weapon of her side; she’s introduced to us flying in on wings of fire, burning her enemies alive.

Lilith’s story does steer back into more familiar territory towards the end of the game.

[pullquote]“You do what you have to to stop him from waking that Warrior. Even if it means takin’ me out. Better dead than a damsel.” – Lilith[/pullquote]During the game, we interact regularly with Angel, who presents herself to us as an AI. Fairly late in the game, it’s revealed to us that Angel is not an AI; she’s a Siren. She’s Handsome Jack’s daughter and his captive, used by him to fill many of the functions of an AI, networking into systems all over the planet and off, controlling everything from the door on an abandoned ship to the oxygen supply of a space station. More importantly to the plot, her Siren powers are being used to charge the Vault Key, the tool that will eventually grant Handsome Jack control over an ancient, powerful alien warrior.

This is actually a pretty common stereotype; a woman’s power is controlled by a man for his own advantage. Often, the woman has to be killed; often, she’ll beg for death, as seen here with Jean Grey.

Cover Artists: John Byrne, Terry Austin, Jim Novak; Writers: Chris Claremont, John Byrne Penciler: John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Colourist: Glynis Wein; Letterer: Tom Orzechowski; Editors: Jim Salicrup, Louise Jones

“Kill me!” X-Men 137 – Writers: Chris Claremont, John Byrne Penciler: John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Colourist: Glynis Wein; Letterer: Tom Orzechowski; Editors: Jim Salicrup, Louise Jones

This sort of happens here, which I didn’t enjoy so much; I would have infinitely preferred being able to save Angel. (I was really fond of her character, even while finding her captivity and death a familiar trope.) But I found her story compelling, and I found her death framed well as a heroic sacrifice that she engineered, taking control of her death as she couldn’t during her life.

It probably also helped that on my first playthrough, I played as the Siren PC called Maya by default. It meant that in Angel’s chamber, Angel, Lilith and I were three of the four characters present. It felt like our problem, a Siren problem, that we were dealing with as best we could.

This also causes a little narrative hiccup. Angel warns us against letting Lilith into her chamber, presumably to avoid exactly what happens. She does not warn Maya against coming in; she’s the protagonist, after all.

Angel dies as a result of the players’ actions. Her death is used to motivate both the player — Angel has been with us since the start and is a charming character — and Handsome Jack, who may have loved his daughter. Jack kills Roland (yes, the only black character from the Borderlands PC group is the only one who dies) and takes Lilith captive, to continue the task Angel was being used for.

Despite Lilith’s quote, “Better dead than a damsel,” she serves a damsel’s purpose here, endangered for the character to rescue. Angel’s death, Roland’s death, and Lilith’s captivity and imminent death give a personal urgency to the struggle to defeat Jack.

On the positive side, though, the Sirens held captive by Jack don’t lose their personalities, or their wills. Angel conspires to undermine Jack, and is ultimately the engineer of her own destruction. So, while her death is a trope, it’s handled in a way that gives her dignity and the narrative illusion of free will, defying Jack and choosing the, well, considerably less evil side. (I hesitate to describe the joyful killers of Borderlands 2 as the good guys.)

Lilith is on a tighter leash — she’s literally collared and rendered helpless — but she’s still in communication, challenging Jack, goading him, demanding that the player’s character get their shit in gear and defeat Jack, either by rescuing her or killing her, whatever it takes.

Again, for me this was considerably enhanced by playing the Siren class; the potential abuse of Sirens for their power felt like a very personal issue for my character, and rescuing Lilith a responsibility to a fellow Siren as well as to an ally.

For a while there, I thought that every PC from Borderlands would die in Borderlands 2. The other two classes, Mordecai and Brick, came to rescue Lilith with me; it was clear from their dialogue and actions the loss of Roland and Lilith’s danger hit them hard. They vanished into a fiery chasm just before the final stretch, leaving me to face the final bosses alone. By that point, I expected to lose Lilith too.

But I rescued her, and it felt really good. She was back on her feet and ready to kill Jack herself if the player’s character didn’t do it. Brick and Mordecai showed up, and they were happily reunited. After Jack’s death, they discuss plans to go forth and hunt other Vaults on other planets. Despite her powers being used by Jack, no one blames Lilith, or considers her a liability. Jack might as well have used Mordecai’s rifle for all the concern the use of her powers warrants. She’s still Lilith; she’s a Siren, their friend and ally, and she loves her powers.

  1. Wendy Browne

    April 7, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    This makes me want to get back to playing this game. I was originally playing as Mordecai in #1 and loved many things about the game, but the back and forth quest grind got to me. I love a good story and great characters though.

    1. valtyr

      April 8, 2015 at 7:49 pm

      Yeah, it can be grindy, but I thought Borderlands 2 did a good job keeping the missions varied and entertaining. I haven’t played Borderlands yet, but I’ve got it and I plan to start soon! I’m probably going to play Lilith first, unsurprisingly. 🙂

      1. Wendy Browne

        April 8, 2015 at 7:49 pm

        I’m tempted to skip to Borderlands 2 …. but I’ll try out a little more of the first one and see what happens. Soon. First, The Witcher 2.

  2. Jo Fu

    April 8, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Love the piece! I also played Mordecai *hi5 Wendy*, but I just had the most minor protest! Roland isn’t the only PC from the universe who dies; as of Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel, Nisha and Wilhelm also die.

    I also think Maya’s audio clips from 2 really drive home how scary a Siren can be unleashed, and how the all-male “church” that raised her tried to manipulate her into doing their killing for them. It was a micro-narrative that paralleled Jack’s relationship with Angel that I thought worked really well, especially since Maya’s character in 2 was otherwise pretty bland, especially compared to Salvador, and the background stuff that was written for post-game Axton.

    (Double love that the BL community managers ship characters via Twitter after the games are done. Axton + Ellie 4 life.)

    1. Wendy Browne

      April 8, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      *long distance sniping high five*

    2. valtyr

      April 8, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      Ah, I haven’t played the Pre-Sequel yet, so I couldn’t speak to that. It’s nice that they’ve brought some diversity to death!

      Yeah, agreed on Maya – I also heard one of her idle clips for the first time while waiting around in co-op yesterday. Roughly, “When I left the monastery for the first time, the head monk said ‘child, you have so much to learn’. He probably would have said more if I hadn’t put a bullet through him.” There’s definitely a subtle creepiness to her character!

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